The Real Deal on TV Cops
by Charles Shafer
.....You're settled in for the evening, and your favorite cop show comes on TV. In the opening scene, a murder suspect is sitting in a cubbyhole of a room, his attorney at his side. A couple of homicide detectives are leaning close, taking turns at saying stuff like, "We know you robbed that grocery store. Killed the cashier. We've got the gun, two eyewitnesses, so you better confess or they're gonna stick a needle in your arm. Put you to sleep. Forever like." A prosecuting attorney stands in the corner with a big smirk on his face.
.....The murderer wipes his sweaty brow with his handcuffed hands, and leans over to his attorney. They whisper a few lines and the attorney nods. The murderer looks up at the homicide dicks. Blubbering, he says, "You gotta gimmie a break. I didn't mean it. Puleeeze."
.....Entertaining? You bet. Only one problem. Every cop from Chicago to Peking is falling over laughing. Because . . . Never happen.
.....First off, no cop interrogates a suspect with his attorney present. The attorney shows up, end of story. They either charge the guy or let him go, because no way is his lawyer going to let him say zero, zilch, zip.
.....And the suspect in handcuffs? Nope. Never, but ever, will a cop handcuff a suspect with his hands in front. Those cuffs are made of hardened steel, and cuffed like that the suspect is armed with a deadly weapon. Besides, US courts have ruled that interrogating a handcuffed suspect, front or back, is a form of coercion, and anything he says will be inadmissable in a court of law.
.....Both cops going at the suspect at the same time. Doesn't work that way, and here's why. One dick might be trying to find out where the suspect hid stolen goods. The other concerned with identifying an accomplice. Just when one man is getting somewhere, the other asks a question off topic, and the suspect, instead of sweating out what's important, answers the other detective, and is off the hook.
.....And giving the suspect a break. Can't. Only the prosecuting attorney is authorized.
.....Which brings up another point. Very often you'll see the prosecuting attorney questioning the suspect. Not a good idea, at least until the detective has the case entirely nailed down. This because most prosecutors are not good interrogators, and one wrong word could trigger the suspect to clam up. If so, that's it, you're finished.
.....So now the detectives take a break, walk into their office. One guy's a lieutenant, and collapses into the easy chair behind at his desk, looking dejected out a picture window. The other's a sergeant, and he slams his fist against the wall, yelling, "Dammit, we gotta get this guy. I'm going back in there, beat it outta him." Eyes bulging, lips quivering.
.....Powerful. Moving. Sure, but sorry, . . . Never happen.
.....Detectives, hell, all cops, can't afford to let themselves get personally involved in their cases. They do, they'll be on a heart-monitoring machine in no time. Okay, you might see a guy like that here and there, but not for long. He'll never last. Anyway, nobody will want to work with him, because he's a loose cannon, just waiting to go off. Screw up every case he works on.
.....And a detective having his own office. With a picture window, no less. Reminds me of last night's episode of NYPD Blue. A new dick is assigned to the squad, and somebody says, "Take that desk there, cause the guy who had it won't be back."
.....Laughable. In Chicago no detective gets a desk of his own. Matter of fact, what desk? Chicago detectives work in one large room, with tables spread around, old beat up typewriters and computers at the ready. As ready as they get, anyway. Twenty or more detectives on each shift, shuffling in and out, trying to find time to do their paperwork.
.....And lieutenants, sergeants, doing interrogations. Ha! CPD's Detective Division has lieutenants and sergeants all right, but they're supervisors and never leave the office. Most are good men, but plenty more haven't spent day one as a street detective. Got their nice desk job because they're heavyweights, got a rabbi downtown, know the right guy, whatever you want to call it.
.....Here's something I myself didn't know until just the other day, when I sat down with Detective Ed Dickinson of the Chicago Police's Violent Crime Section. They separate homicides into two categories. Killings and murders. Killings are when, say, one gangbanger knifes another over what corner they can sell drugs. Get it, one scumbag 'Killing' another. The detectives will work that kind of case just as vigorously as any, but should they not be able to make a case, or even if they do and lose in court-no big deal, because the killer's going to get his sooner or later anyway. Probably by the friends of the gangbanger he just killed.
.....Then there's the innocent shop owner who gets shot dead by some robber. That's plain, flat out murder, and any cop is naturally going to make sure he has his man dead bang, so when they go to court, he gets the maximum. They lose, it hurts.
.....Never saw that depicted on TV, have you? Me, either.
.....Okay, so back to our homicide detectives. Some slick-looking private eye shows up, tells the cops he's been working on the same case, and knows where an accomplice is hiding. A third-floor flat. "Great," the detectives say, and with the private eye, jump in their car and take up surveillance across the street, watching. They see the wrongdoer through the window, moving around, and decide to go in after him. As always, one detective goes around back, and waits until the other kicks in the front door. The wrongdoer grabs his gun, and starts shooting. Both cops return fire, and shoot the guy dead. Seconds later an army of cop cars come screaming up, disco lights flashing, sirens blaring. Them all running into the flat, guns at the ready.
.....See it on TV maybe twice a week, every week of the year.
.....Exciting. Got you on the edge of your seat. Me, too.
.....Except . . . Never happen.
.....I served 28 years on the Chicago PD, mostly as a detective. Not once did I so much as receive a telephone call from a private eye. Never heard of it, either. But say it happened, for TV's sake. At best, the detectives would thank the guy and send him on his way. No chance they'd take him with. They have enough to worry about without some dude at their side, not knowing what he's worth if things get tight. At worst, they'd stick the guy in a cage until they can check his story out. Thoroughly.
.....The surveillance. Come on, when you see a couple of detectives set up directly in front of their target's house, don't you ask the TV screen, "Hey, can't the bad guy see you guys? I mean he's desperate, gotta be on the lookout."
....."Hell, yeah," would be the answer if your boob tube could talk. Cops set up a surveillance, you can bet they're going to make sure the suspect can't detect them. Probably get a least a block down, because every wrongdoer and his uncle can spot an unmarked police car like it's their grandma's chocolate chip cookies.
.....One cop goes around the back, the other up the front.
.....One? Are they nuts? They've got all the time in the world, so get at least two, probably four more men to help. Take as much time as it takes to plan out an attack, make sure everybody knows what to do. Preferably uniform men will be requested, because they're easily identifiable, don't have to worry about innocent bystanders thinking you're home invaders, taking pot shots at you. And when going through the door, you don't have to yell such crap as, "Chicago Police! Don't anybody move!"
.....And kicking in the door. What a joke! Tell you what, pick out any door you'd like and see if you can kick it in. Especially with one blow, like on TV.
.....(By the way, I can't help but stop off here and mention the thief who sticks a credit card in a door jam, twists the knob, and in he goes. Go ahead, try it. I only hope you haven't locked yourself out beforehand. And any ladies who might be reading-You just did the old man a favor, because you won't be using that card again!!)
.....Back to our heroes, now in a heated gun battle with the wrongdoer.
.....Firstly, cops from both the back and front doors would not be shooting, for fear of hitting each other. Only those going through the front will do the shooting. And then only if they have to. Cops don't like gun battles. Somebody can get hurt. Maybe them, which is not acceptable. That's what planning is for.
.....Oh, and sometimes that TV cop is a nice guy, and wings the wrongdoer in the shoulder, maybe the leg, because he doesn't want to kill the guy. Know what, almost any cop will tell you it's a terrible thing to have to kill someone, but when the bullets start flying, forget it. You pick out a target, shoot, and hope to put down whomever is shooting back. For good. And afterwards, you might have to change your drawers, because unlike Bert Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, you're scared out of your pants.
.....Now an army of cop cars screaming up, disco lights flashing, sirens blaring. We've all seen it on TV, the cops jumping out, racing up the stairs, guns at the ready.
.....Always been a laugh amongst real cops, because why, after the shooting's over, would newly arriving cops be in a hurry?
.....Next scene, and a dozen cops are standing over the dead wongdoer. The detectives tell the uniform men, "Okay, take him to the morgue. See ya later," and bingo, we're switched to a local tavern. Our heroes at the bar, having a beer, talking over the day's events.
.....Yeah, you got it . . . Never happen.
.....A detective tells the uniform men to clean up, they'll tell him right back, "Hey, pal. Clean up your own mess."
.....And before the body is moved-before anything is touched, everybody stands back, waits for evidence technicians to arrive. The entire scene will have to be photographed, evidence collected and preserved. Might take hours. That's okay though, because they're also waiting for Internal Affairs to show. Whenever a cop fires his weapon, Internal Affairs has to make an on scene investigation. In most departments all cops involved will have to give up their guns. For testing, to see exactly who shot where, and what.
.....Then there's paperwork to be completed. Tons of it, including signed statements by all involved cops, to justify firing their weapons. Takes hours.
.....And this can be grueling, because the way civil lawyers are today, the cops might end up getting sued for their actions.
.....Okay, so 99 percent of those suits are thrown out, but think of the real cop worrying about his career, his family, and know another reason why he'd rather not have had to shoot in the first place.
.....One more truth that needs to be told. TV depicts detectives as heroes, doing all the dangerous work, and their uniform counterparts as necessary assistants.
.....Just the opposite. Detectives investigate crime, and pick the time and place to make an arrest so it's on their own terms. Give themselves every advantage. Rarely put themselves in jeopardy. Not that they should, but take the uniform cop, who gets a radio call such as, 'Man with a gun.' He has to respond. Now! And at whatever set of circumstances that arise.
.....Now that's danger.
.....All this said, I must add that a lot of the cop shows are entertaining. I polled some cop buddies, and Homicide: Life On The Street seemed to top the list. Law and Order is also liked. NYPD Blue, not so much, because it's more a soap opera, dealing with the characters' lives, rather than police work.
.....Cracker, the UK show, was one of my favorites though I've never heard of a psychologist working with cops. Well, yeah, maybe I have. Trying to clean out the mush between their ears after dealing with the scum of the earth day in and day out.
Used by permission of the author. This article first appeared in print in Mystery Scene in the US, Crime Time in the UK, and Crime Factory in Australia, but as far as Charlie can tell, this is its first on-line appearance.
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Before he retired, Charlie Shafer was a Chicago cop for twenty-eight years, and spent several years as a member of a special Task Force assigned to Chicago's infamous housing projects. His first novel, On Cabrini Green, based on those experiences, was published in 2000.
Praised as "an intriguing cop procedural with humor and heart," it's currently available at Amazon and other fine bookstores, on-line and off. It kicks off when Sgt. Paul Kostovic, a member of the TF Force, loses his gun while stopping a carjack/robbery in progress.
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